I. The Ancient Heavenly Connection
If there was sound emitting from the crowd of around 70,000, my ears were deaf to their howls. My mind was still trying to comprehend what was happening on stage and if it was something spectacular or disastrous. “You know why you’re here,” Travis Scott said, with the authority that boomed from his voice breaking my daze. He spoke these words while staring toward an endless audience of spectators, but the message was intended only for the young man whose shoulder his arm rested on.
No response followed the statement—the man stared at the appointed mission without fear, having abandoned it somewhere between the womb and his decision to rush the stage. Security reacted as their job entails, yet Travis came to the man's aid. “He’s apart of the show!” the Houston rapper barked at the bright orange bodies attempting to restrain his impromptu guest.
What Travis granted wasn't the freedom to roam the stage, but a chance to receive his wings by flying back into the crowd. The moment served as a reminder of what Travis said earlier in his set about a body being removed from one of many mosh pits: “It’s okay, I love you.” It was love, but also pity. Pity from the maestro of rage in the heart of chaos for all those who didn’t earn their stripes.
The young man's leap caused my heart to race, a feeling I experienced similar the night prior when Lil Uzi Vert plunged into the arms of admirers. The Philly rock star's daredevil feat was his second Rolling Loud cliff dive in as many years. I was told by multiple attendees it will be to hip-hop what Jimi Hendrix’s burning guitar at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival is to rock 'n' roll. Setting aside the knee-jerk, hyperbolic reaction, the comparison may prove to be true—both acts are a different flirtation with anarchy and reckless abandonment. Jimi embodied the idea of burning down the stage to become an unforgettable flame, and with each fearless leap, Lil Uzi's legend grows. Rolling Loud is becoming big enough where big feats become tall tales.
The common thread throughout my Rolling Loud weekend was how the young, new age, rock star rappers are all chasing the contagious energy inspired by rebellion. Punk's influence expands further today than a few novelty bands and Hot Topic T-shirts. Almost every rapper who has been accused of mumbling demanded the mosh pit to be open, and as they screamed over their vocals (note: please stop doing this, rappers), mayhem ensued.
I watched from a distance knowing what I saw was nothing like how it felt from within. As fireworks brought color to the starless night while “goosebumps” gave us our final rush of the evening, I walked away understanding the reason why it was called a rodeo, and why surviving was considered a bloody honor.
II. With Dreams, With Drugs, With Waking Nightmares
As an intoxicated body collided with mine, I wondered how many hollow Xanax eyes were fixated on J. Cole. The festival grounds swarmed with vices and the walking dead, whose overindulgence caused them to wobble like zombies trying to devour Rick Grimes. If Cole intended to use KOD as a sermon to preach "Choose wisely," Rolling Loud would be an iconic stage to make his pulpit.
That wasn't the case. Cole didn't preach at all as he shuffled through new bangers (“ATM,” “Motiv8,” “KOD”) and old favorites (“No Role Modelz”, “Nobody’s Perfect,” “Power Trip”). The deeper, heavier records didn’t make it to his setlist. Instead, his time on stage was filled with a crowd-pleasing collection of what could easily be packaged as J. Cole’s greatest hits.
There’s a confidence about Cole that felt bulletproof. Each time I see him perform he appears to be more comfortable in his skin. While his presence is becoming more enormous, he radiates a calm charisma that makes the largest fields feel like intimate venues.
As I watched, a woman’s voice behind me rapped every lyric, including every “nigga.” I didn’t turn around to confirm my suspensions, though. Meeting the eyes of Jane Brady, Kelly Kapowski, or Roseanne Barr while the lyrics “They killin' niggas for Js, that's death over designer” were being recited aloud would’ve soiled my mood.
When Cole began “1985,” the energy was bananas. When he cut the beat, and passionately rapped a cappella, everyone unified for the climactic “In five years you’re gonna be on Love & Hip-Hop.” As a diss record, “1985” is beloved, but what about as a piece of advice? What of the song’s overarching awareness of trap music’s relationship with a white audience?
I also found beauty in seeing so many creeds and colors come together in celebration of hip-hop. A diverse crowd of fans clamored around Jaden Smith and roared with every moonwalk. It felt good to watch Blocboy JB cause an eruption of spirited cheers as he ran up and down, exploding his 21 years of stored energy into sporadic sugar rushes. Watching a healthy Chief Keef perform “Love Sosa” was an unexpected treat, even if the audience didn't react with the elation I expected.
Meek Mill being greeted by cheers as a surprise, special guest at Rolling Loud—or any festival, really—was something unforeseeable after “Back to Back” nearly crippled all the progress he spent years building. I was backstage during his performance, where there were security and police everywhere, but the fireworks that introduced him and marked his exit were symbolic of the colorful explosion he was in the process of making.
There was a lot of joy to be found across the three Rolling Loud stages.
III. Hip-Hop Paradise
The sound of a camera was heard as Famous Dex knocked over the Audiomack snacks sitting outside. I watched as his awkwardness turned to mischief, stuffing fallen bags of crackers and chips into an Audiomack handbag and bolting to the stage. From afar, he carried the obnoxious energy of an annoying relative, but on stage, the crowd watched his set as if he was much more than an awkward teenager dressed as a rapper. When they cut his microphone for carelessly going over his set time, the crowd broke out into a chant begging for one more song.
In the same spot Dex once stood, Starlito and Don Trip came by later in the day. The two had finished their shared set, happy with their turnout, and were soaking up the festival. They were welcoming, engaging, and in good spirits. Starlito confessed how he was impressed with Migos' performance the previous night, while Trip talked about the importance of flexibility that independence allowed him. As a father who wants to be active in his kids' lives, making his own schedule grants him something a major label can’t offer―freedom.
The duality of Dex and the Step Brothers duo is what I enjoyed most about Rolling Loud. It was a culmination of hip-hop at the current moment; to be there was to walk through the many layers of post-blog era rap. It’s where I watched Curren$y bring new life to classic records with a backing band, and heard the roar when Playboi Carti brought out A$AP Rocky. It’s where Trippie Redd brought out Lil Yachty later than intended because Lil Boat was taking a photo with Timbaland’s daughter. It's where Future, as the final headliner of the festival, brought out Young Thug and Nicki Minaj as surprise guests.
Festivals are often rated based on the performances of their headlining acts, but Rolling Loud is memorable for allowing hip-hop a space to be a minefield of micro-explosions over three straight days. I’ll remember seeing the glee on faces as Sheck Wes performed “Mo Bamba” in much the same way I’ll never forget the soreness of spending 72 hours on my feet. I laughed while watching fans recite NAV lyrics, and found elation in seeing Fetty Wap run through the records that made him a star. I still have the dollar that magically appeared when J.I.D played me the intro to his next project and will continue to wallow in the sadness of standing in the rain waiting for Lil Wayne to never appear on stage.
Rolling Loud was three exhausting days of madness, comradery, bacon, and hip-hop. Surrounded by people talking, singing, discussing, and appreciating the various facets that hip-hop culture has to offer felt like an alternate reality. But really, it reflected how much rap has exploded in this era, and brought to life all the components that exemplify the swelling vastness of it’s dominating presence. The spirit of rap today was felt throughout every stage and performance.
Hip-hop might never take over Coachella or find its Woodstock, but we have Rolling Loud, the sacred ground where hip-hop reigns supreme.